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Chick v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

October 19, 2018

Nathan Chick and Sarah Lightbody, Plaintiffs,
v.
James M. Johnson, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         This matter is before the court for review of Defendant James M. Johnson's (“Defendant”) Motion to Change Venue filed on May 25, 2018. (ECF No. 10.) Plaintiffs Nathan Chick and Sarah Lightbody (collectively “Plaintiffs”) vigorously opposed Defendant's Motion on June 11, 2018. (ECF No. 12.) Defendant replied to Plaintiffs' opposition on June 12, 2018. (ECF No. 13.) For the reasons stated herein, the court GRANTS Defendant's Motion.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiffs filed their Complaint against Defendant on March, 23, 2018. (ECF No. 1.) In their Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant was negligent when he operated a motorboat at a high rate of speed and caused them to collide with him on Lake Wylie, a body of water that is in North and South Carolina (ECF No. 12 at 3). (Id. at 2-3.) Defendant was personally served, in South Carolina, with the Complaint on April 16, 2018. (ECF No. 5.) On May 25, 2018, Defendant filed his Motion to Change Venue. (ECF No. 10.) In his Motion, Defendant moved to change venue because “the incident occurred in North Carolina, the case was investigated by [the] state of North Carolina, the treating physicians are in North Carolina, and the majority of the witnesses are residents of North Carolina.” (Id. at 1.)

         On June 11, 2018, Plaintiffs filed their Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Change Venue. (ECF No. 12.) Plaintiffs argue that venue is proper in the District of South Carolina because in admiralty cases, “venue is proper in any district where process can be made upon the defendants.” (Id. at 2 (quoting Campbell v. Johnson & Towers, Inc., 123 F.Supp.2d 329, 338 (D.S.C.)).) In other words, Plaintiffs submit that “the rules of venue [are] more liberal in admiralty actions.” (Id.) Additionally, Plaintiffs forcefully maintain that Defendant's Motion fails to establish that a transfer of venue is proper, and he has failed to carry his burden. (Id. at 3-4.) Plaintiffs request that the court deny Defendant's Motion.

         On May 25, 2018, Defendant, replying to Plaintiffs, filed his Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion to Change Venue. (ECF No. 13.) Defendant argues that his Motion should be granted because the accident was investigated by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the North Carolina Police Department, material witnesses are outside of South Carolina, Plaintiffs are residents of Charlotte, North Carolina, and North Carolina courts are better suited to apply the substantive law of North Carolina. (Id. at 1-3.) Moreover, Defendant alleges that the actual accident took place in North Carolina, not South Carolina. (Id. at 3.) Defendant asks the court to grant his Motion. (Id. at 3-4.)

         II. JURISDICTION

         A. Personal Jurisdiction

         A federal court is required to have personal jurisdiction under the Due Process Clause. See Foster v. Arletty 3 Sarl, 278 F.3d 409, 413 (4th Cir. 2002) (citing Ins. Corp. of Ir., Ltd. v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694, 702 (1982)). Generally, unless personal jurisdiction is challenged in a pre-answer motion or in the answer itself, it is deemed waived. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h). See also Bethlehem Steel Corp. v. Devers, 389 F.2d 44, 45-46 (4th Cir. 1968) (“Since the appearance must be deemed authorized and since no attack on personal jurisdiction was made in a pre-answer motion or in the answer itself, the defense of lack of jurisdiction over the person is waived.” (citation omitted)). When a defendant fails to raise the issue of personal jurisdiction, the defendant consents to the court's exercise of personal jurisdiction. See Foster, 278 F.3d at 413.

         In the instant case, Defendant filed his Answer on May 25, 2018. (ECF No. 10.) In his Answer, Defendant failed to challenge the court's personal jurisdiction over him. (See id.) Therefore, the court may exercise personal jurisdiction over Defendant because he has waived this specific defense. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h). Moreover, even if a challenge existed, the court would likely possess personal jurisdiction over Defendant because he is a resident of South Carolina (ECF No. 13-1 at 3) and was properly served with the Complaint in South Carolina (ECF No. 5). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(e). See also 4A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1069.5 (4th ed. 2018) (“[T]he paradigm forum for an individual is his or her state of domicile. . . . An individual can be subject to jurisdiction when he or she is served with process while physically present in the forum state.”).

         B. Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         Subject-matter jurisdiction “involves a court's power to hear a case” and may never be “forfeited or waived.” United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630 (2002). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1), district courts have original jurisdiction for “[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction . . . .” Generally, in order for a court to properly invoke § 1333(1) for a tort claim, a plaintiff “must satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity.” Gossett v. McMurtry, 764 F.Supp.2d 782, 784 (D.S.C. 2010) (citing Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534 (1995)). To satisfy the location test, a court must determine, “whether the tort occurred on navigable water or whether the injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel on navigable water.” Jerome B. Grubart, 513 U.S. at 534. The connection test requires the court to assess whether the incident had a “potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce” and a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.” Gossett, 764 F.Supp.2d at 784 (quoting Jerome B. Grubart, 513 U.S. at 534). Admiralty jurisdiction generally extends to injuries involving recreational vessels. See also Oliver by Oliver v. Hardesty, 745 F.2d 317, 319-20 (4th Cir. 1984) (holding that a district court possessed admiralty jurisdiction when a defendant allegedly engaged in a negligent operation). See also Ray v. Lesniak, 294 F.Supp.3d 466, 481 (D.S.C. 2018) (“Admiralty jurisdiction extends to injuries involving recreational vessels such as the Celadon.”); Mahony v. Lowcountry Boatworks, LLC, 465 F.Supp.2d 547, 550-54 (D.S.C. 2006) (holding that the court possessed admiralty jurisdiction when a plaintiff alleged that a defendant was negligent prior to placing a vessel in the water, and the incident had a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce).

         Plaintiffs brought the instant suit against Defendant after a boat collision with him on Lake Wylie. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiffs specifically allege that Defendant caused the collision and was negligent in the operation of his vessel. (Id. at 3-7.) Given that the boating accident occurred on Lake Wylie, the alleged tort must have occurred on navigable waters. See Jerome B. Grubart, 513 U.S. at 534 (holding that the location test was satisfied when a company allegedly caused a flood involving the Chicago River). See also Hartman v. United States, 522 F.Supp. 114, 116-117 (D.S.C. 1981) (“This [c]ourt holds Lake Wylie is susceptible of being traversed by commercial craft between states and is therefore navigable for purposes of invoking admiralty jurisdiction.”). Therefore, because the accident occurred on navigable waters, the location test is satisfied. See also Oliver by Oliver, 745 F.2d at 319-20. The accident between Plaintiffs and Defendant also has a connection to maritime activity. See Id. at 320 (“The negligent operation of the defendant's vessel bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities.”); Kelly v. United States, 531 F.2d 1144, 1147 (2d Cir. 1976) (“[A]dmirality jurisdiction has been upheld in a variety of recent cases involving pleasure boat accidents.). See also Ray, 294 F.Supp.3d at 481 (“[B]eing struck by the main sheet of a racing sailboat has a connection to maritime activity.”); Schumacher v. Cooper, 850 F.Supp. 438, 447 (D.S.C. 1994) (“Personal injury negligence actions arising from a collision between a pleasure boat and a swimmer on a lake in South Carolina are within the admiralty jurisdiction of this court.”) (citations omitted); Hartman, 522 F.Supp. at 119 (“This [c]ourt concludes that the collision here involved, between a vessel in navigation and an abandoned bridge piling, is just as much a traditional concern of admiralty . . . .”). But see Souther v. Thompson, 754 F.2d 151, 153 (4th Cir. 1985) (“Unlike Foremost and Oliver, the controversy in this case does not arise out of an alleged navigational error such as occurs when a pleasure craft collides with a swimmer, water skier, reef, or another vessel. In his complaint[, ] K. Souther failed to make any factual allegations that the operator of the boat had violated a navigational rule.”). Accordingly, the court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333, and the court's admiralty jurisdiction is properly invoked. See Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 364-65 (1990).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), “a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought . . . .” A change in venue is “[f]or the convenience of [the] parties and witnesses” and “in the interest of justice.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). “A section 1404(a) transfer merely involves a discretionary change to another district where the action could have been brought.” Gower v. Lehman, 799 F.2d 925, 927 (4th Cir. 1986). Therefore, a district court's ...


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